Switched On: Pandora's Box (Part 2)

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|05.03.06

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Switched On: Pandora's Box (Part 2)
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Last week's column discussed Slim Devices' elegant Squeezebox hardware, its versatile but complex server software, and SqueezeNetwork, the companion online service through which the hardware accesses the Pandora music recommendation service. Pandora is considered by some to be a "Web 2.0" site -- the blanket term we're all aware of referring to a startup that generates more RSS than revenue.

But Pandora's recommendation engine is the best I've tried. Unlike many others, it doesn't rely directly on the purchase behavior or music ownership of other people, be they friends or fellow customers. Rather, it leverages data from the Music Genome Project, a collaboration begun in 2000 to classify music via its attributes. In fact, some criticize Pandora for being "too good" at matching a song's style, and while there is a case that Pandora should include a control for how strictly it should match a given song or artist, users can at least create up to 100 different channels and diversify them by adding names of songs or artists to the mix.

Pandora can offer a depth of detail as to which musical attributes it chose when recommending a song. However, it doesn't seem to account for at least some important factors, such as the qualities of a singer's voice. Pandora offers a free tier of service, but access via SqueezeNetwork requires a subscription, which costs between $3 and $4 per month. The low subscription price is worth it for at least a few months, but Pandora needs to greatly expand its catalog to keep subscribers interested. Fortunately, Squeezebox owners get a three-month trial of the premium service, a $12 value.

So, what happens when you mix Squeezebox 3.0 with Web 2.0? Between setting up the Squeezebox and SlimServer and registering for both the Pandora and SqueezeNetwork services, there's a timely tax to enjoy new tracks. With the exception of online music store links, those familiar with Pandora's Web interface will find the Squeezebox implementation a nearly perfect functional recreation; you can even add songs to the Web-hosted favorites list.

However, the mirroring of Pandora's interface is, to invoke the detective cliché, a bit too perfect. For while Pandora maintains an isolated existence on an island of Flash code online, it yearns to be free among your digital music library via the Squeezebox.

Rather than have to enter the SqueezeNetwork service and choose Pandora to listen to prefabricated channels you've set up on the Web, it would be great to have Pandora generate channels based on whatever song or artist playing on the Squeezebox at the touch of a remote control button. Pandora's API and the company's willingness to let third parties experiment with it -- as evidenced by its blessing a mashup with complementary service last.fm -- could facilitate this integration.

Nevertheless, and in spite of its walled garden and SlimServer's warts, adding the delightful and affordable Pandora service expands the Squeezebox's already impressive functionality to include superior music discovery. Unlike the ills of humanity that escaped from the mythological Pandora's box, this is a secret that deserves to get out.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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